Gaslighting is a deliberate process where one person sets out to destroy another person’s relationship with reality. It is often a feature of abusive relationships because a person who no longer trusts their own judgement is easier to harm and control. It’s also very normal for abusers to tell their victims that nothing happened. There was no punch. There was no shouting. It didn’t happen. The victim is mad.
When you hear day in and day out that you said things you are sure you never said, did things you do not think you did… you question yourself. If the person you love and trust keeps telling you that you’re imagining things, the damage can be done long before you notice what’s happening. You end up not trusting your memory or judgement and that’s terrifying. You’re so busy trying to hold on to a viable reality that you don’t see what’s being done.
I got out. What I’ve only just started dealing with is the legacy of gaslighting. I’ve not seen much about the aftermath which is part of why I’ve only just realised that there is one,for me.
If someone states as fact that I’ve done or not done something, where I think the opposite is true, then I fall straight into total panic. It’s easily done. A misheard word, a misremembering by someone else, a misreading, a misinterpretation… but I don’t default to assuming the other person made a mistake. I go straight back into that headspace where my reality was broken and I didn’t trust myself to know if something that hurt was in my best interests or not. I recognise it now as a form of triggering that makes me largely unable to deal with this kind of situation.
I can be put here by accident – we all make mistakes and many people pay less attention to their words than I do. What we remember is not always what the other person remembers – usually that’s fine, it’s when it gets thrown at me as unassailable fact that the panic kicks in. I can also be panicked by people ascribing meaning to my actions that was not what I meant at all and refusing to let me explain how I see things. I’ve gone a few rounds with this without recognising that triggering was part of the process. Evidently, I can be triggered by anything that looks like gaslighting and while it’s happening, I have no way of even thinking about whether this is an intentional attack or just poor communication. I don’t experience it as either, initially. I experience it as me being an awful failure of a human being who should crawl off somewhere and die quietly, because that’s where it puts me.
This is one of the things that makes triggering so difficult to deal with. While it’s happening, you often can’t tell it’s happening – a previous reality asserts itself over the top of the one you are currently in. You’re back in the place or the headspace where the trauma happened. It doesn’t leave room for questioning it, or thinking about the mechanics of what’s happening. With gaslighting, being put back there suddenly is terrifying and disorientating. It reasserts a former reality that wasn’t real and that was all about trying to break me. I feel the things I used to feel, and they are not good and further, they rob me of all means of dealing with whatever’s caused the trigger. If I’m panicking because I no longer know what’s real, I can’t deal with the other person’s mistake. Or my own.
I’m working on a strategy to cope with this next time it comes round. Here’s what I’ve got so far: I am entitled to feel however I feel regardless of whether it makes sense to anyone else. I am entitled to have opinions, even if they are at odds with other people’s opinions. I am entitled to feel safe, so if I’m not feeling safe I should step back from a situation and make some space to get myself on a better footing before I try and sort anything out. I do not owe anyone a response or explanation straight away, I can have more time. There are usually other people who I can check in with about what I said and did, and how it might be interpreted. I should do that as soon as I can. I have people I can trust to help me navigate. I need to develop these ideas when I’m not triggered so that I have them in my head when things go wrong.
I recognise that what has happened to me was not of my making. That makes it harder to deal with alone. However, the support of people around me makes a lot of odds. Trust is something I find difficult, but increasingly I think trust is the way out of this for me. It is in trusting the people who think I am sane enough, and good enough that I can build resistance to the triggering.